(WOMENSENEWS)–This fall, the students in Becky Adams’ college class on marriage–more than 80 percent of them female–will quickly be taught that much of what they believe about marriage is a myth.
“They believe that love is all you need, that they’ll never be angry with their partners, that marriage will give them an identity,” said Adams, a professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., charged with teaching foursections of her popular class. Adams will be informing her students that conflict in marriage is inevitable and predictable. Finances, in-laws and the first baby are top areas of conflict and the key to weathering them is learning how to communicate and negotiate.
Ball State is one of a growing number of institutions of higher learning that have added academic courses on marriage. A list compiled by Dr. Dennis Lowe, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., indicates that 49 colleges and universities now offer such courses.
The movement to add them began about 10 years ago and has picked up momentum in the past five years. The titles of the classes range from “Close Relationships” at Amherst College, in Amherst, Mass., to “Intimate Relationships and Gender Roles,” at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.
Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is offering “Marriage 101: Building Loving and Lasting Partnerships,” that, according to the course description, is intended to serve as “a means to relationship enhancement and as a ‘primary prevention,’ a sort of immunization against serious marital troubles and divorce in later life.”
The trend is part of a broad national movement, led by the Bush administration with bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, to try to lower the divorce rate and encourage people to marry.
Classes Offer ‘Road Map’ to Success
A young couple marrying today has a 40 percent lifetime risk of divorce, said Dr. Scott M. Stanley, a professor at the University of Denver and co-developer of one of the most widely used marriage education curricula, known as PREP, or the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program.
Proponents say their support of marriage classes is not motivated by moralistic criticism of divorce, extramarital cohabitation or gay relationships. They say that marriage skills are worth teaching simply because statistics show married people and their children to be healthier, happier and financially more secure than families split by divorce. “Whole families disintegrate with divorce and it affects generations of children,” said Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, in Washington, D.C., and organizer of the “7th Annual Smart Marriages/Happy Families Conference” in Reno, Nev., last June.
Young people, she continued, can “change their odds (of divorce), and get smart about what to expect. We have very good road maps to hand them and can tell them about the behaviors that will lead to success.”
Not everyone, however, agrees that marriage is what makes people healthy, wealthy and wise.
Pamela J. Smock, associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said that many scholars believe the correlation between marriage, health and happiness is due to people with good economic prospects and higher levels of education choosing to marry in the first place.
“If we want to encourage marriage,” she said, “we have to make sure people have stable jobs and high enough levels of income.”
Federal Welfare Law to Fund More Marriage Promotion
Bill Coffin, special assistant for marriage education within the federal Administration for Children and Families, said that pending congressional welfare legislation could spur more colleges to add marriage-ed classes. If passed, that legislation would mean that $300 million was available for marriage promotion and education in a variety of venues, including colleges, high schools and even prisons, Coffin said.
Some colleges and universities, however, have been reluctant to add the courses, feeling they lack academic rigor, said John Wu, associate professor of psychology at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and a co-moderator of a workshop at the June conference in Reno.
Some feminists, legal scholars and social scientists also view marriage promotion with suspicion, particularly as it applies to women on welfare.
Linda C. McClain, professor of law at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., said the underlying premise is that poor people with better families won’t need so much government support.
“Poor women marrying poor men is not the solution to poverty,” said McClain, an organizer of a marital-law conference at Hofstra last spring.
Coffin noted that the goal is not to keep people in unhappy marriages. “Divorce is not necessarily a bad thing–some people should get divorced,” he said. “But many people believe that the divorce rate is too high and that some of that is preventable because people don’t have the information necessary to thrive.”
Diane Sollee, in fact, said she believes “it’s possible to get the (marriage) failure rate down to 10 percent in seven years if we can let people know what we know about marriage.”
Two of the earliest pioneers of college-marriage education are Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. They have been teaching such courses for 10 years at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle. Like Becky Adams’ classes at Ball State, the Parrotts’ classes are very popular, with 250 students enrolled and a waiting list.
‘Marriage Rallies’ on Oklahoma Campuses
When former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating decided in 1999 to put $10 million into a comprehensive marriage-education effort, he invited the Parrotts to take up residence in Oklahoma, for a fee of $250,000, and to hold “marriage rallies” at the state’s college campuses. Consultants had convinced state officials that cutting the divorce rate was a way to improve the economy.
The Parrotts, co-authors of “Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts,” spoke at more than 20 Oklahoma colleges, letting the students know, for example, that there’s a shift away from the “starry-eyed experience of dating” after marriage, according to Les Parrott. “We know from research that the man’s focus goes from wooing the woman to making a living,” he said, “but many times couples feel they married the wrong person because they don’t have the same passion they started with.”
One of the problems with campus marriage-education efforts, however, is that enrollment is “predominantly female,” according to Pepperdine’s Lowe, a fact that Becky Adams bears out. “In a class of 45, I may have eight men,” said Adams, the Ball State professor. “I’m trying to encourage more males to enroll, but our society’s expectation is that women are the ones who make marriages work.”
Indeed, a 2001 study of the attitudes of college women indicated that while 83 percent viewed being married as “a very important goal.” Yet, the respondents believed their male counterparts had a very different viewpoint. Only 61 percent agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement: “There aren’t many guys here who want a committed relationship.” The study, conducted by the Institute for American Values, a nonprofit think tank in New York City, was based on a telephone survey of a representative sample of 1,000 college women, supplemented by in-depth interviews with 62 women on 11 campuses.
Frances Cerra Whittelsey is the co-author of “Women Pay More: And How to Put a Stop to It,” and writes about women’s issues, the environment, consumer problems and travel from her home in Huntington, N.Y.
For more information:
Council on Contemporary Families:
Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program: